Jeremy Pierce: January 2010 Archives

Race Thought Experiment #5

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If God miraculously modified a chicken to make it lay walnuts instead of eggs, and those walnuts grew into what looked like normal walnut trees, would you think the offspring was a chicken?

Update: It occurs to me that the second question I asked is really a separate issue, so I'll save that for post #6.

Christian Carnival CCCXII

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The 312th Christian Carnival is up at MandM.

Basic Inerrancy

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Matt Flanagan's Inerrancy and Biblical Authority discussed Glenn Peoples' Inerrantly Assuming Inerrancy in History. There are so many things I disagree with in the latter post that it was very hard to pull myself away from my desire to write a detailed response, but I didn't have the time.

I actually agree with much of what Matt says, if you frame it as a hypothetical, which he does: If Peoples is right that inerrancy as currently held by contemporary interrantists is not the historical doctrine of scripture throughout church history, then it's still possible to claim that the Bible is true in all God intended it to teach us. I think you lose much of what God actually did intend the Bible to teach us, but you can hold a view that God intended it to teach us less than that and still think the Bible teaches all those things.

I've written before about historical figures' attitudes toward scripture, including the biblical authors' own attitudes, and I've concluded that the mainstream Christian attitude toward scripture throughout church history has not been mere inerrancy but the stronger claim that scripture is infallible. [There are those historical revisionists today who claim that they hold to infallibility but not inerrancy, but that's logically impossible without contradiction given what these terms have historically meant. What such people are calling infallibility is not infallibility of scripture but infallibility of certain claims of scripture and not others. Inerrantists hold to the infallibility of all scripture, which entails the inerrancy of all scripture on all matters that it speaks of.]

As I was looking through the text file I keep of things to blog about, I came across a link the Bart Barber's An Errant Bible: The Gateway Heresy (ht: Russell Moore), which I never got around to posting about, but I'm using Matt's recent post as an occasion to do so. Barber's piece is excellent for a number of reasons, but one thing that struck me especially was his response to the first argument he presents from Jim Denison. Denison thinks inerrantists, in responding to objections, have brought inerrancy to the point of death by a thousand qualifications, where the view is so thin that it means hardly anything anymore. In response, Barber says the following:

Actually, Denison's argument works against him, not for him. Yes, many different people have defined "inerrancy" in different ways. And yes, several inerrantists have offered a number of qualifications of the term "inerrancy" in order to forestall misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the term. Denison has suitably demonstrated that people with an impressive array of varied beliefs about the precise nature of the Bible can all claim to be an "inerrantist" in some fashion or another. Denison's suggestion is that this complex state of affairs makes it not very meaningful for one to affirm that he is an inerrantist.
Yet even if this fact makes it mean less when someone affirms that he is an inerrantist, then it necessarily makes it mean more when someone cannot affirm that he is an inerrantist. The denial of inerrancy then means that, out of all the various definitions of inerrancy and with all of the various reasonable qualifications of inerrancy applied, a person still cannot find a way with all of that flexibility to affirm the word in any sense.
I hadn't quite thought about it that way, but I think Barber is right. I myself have argued for a lot of these qualifications. (See my The Broadness of Inerrancy and Longman, Literalism, and Genesis 1.) I don't think inerrancy really is as strong a claim as a lot of people make it out to be. There are several other things a doctrine of scripture will need to affirm to be as conservative as I think fits with what most inerrantists do believe about scripture, and inerrancy itself is only one part of that. I think Barber is right to notice that those who do end up denying inerrancy, as thin as it is given all the qualifications inerrantists bring in, says something about those who do. Their view of the authority and trustworthiness of scripture is even thinner.

This is why it's my view that inerrancy is the basic starting point for a doctrine of scripture. Those who can't hold to it in any sense seem to me to be at odds with orthodox Christian teaching on the nature of scripture. So I can agree with Matt's post only in that his hypothetical is true. If you deny inerrancy, you can still believe that aspects of the Bible's teaching are true, and if those are the only ones that God in his limited sovereignty over scripture cared to influence, then all God attempted to communicate in scripture is present in scripture's infallible teaching. But it reduces the divine role in scripture to a very thin slice of what Christians have historically held to say that God deliberately allowed errors into the Bible of the form that inerrantists deny, and I think it does raise questions of doubt. If you believe the Bible is unreliable in matters of fact that it affirms (but on the view we're considering somehow doesn't teach), then the problem is in figuring out which things it affirms but doesn't teach and which things it teaches via its affirmations. On this two-level view of the Bible, what criteria are there for sorting those out? I suggest that it will be your own preferences for what you want the Bible to teach, even if the position itself doesn't entail that (as I've seen inerrantists claim).

Ethan's speech pathologist sent home his report from his evaluation for his upcoming triennial review. Two things about it seem a little strange.

1. One of the tests aimed to discover how well Ethan uses appropriate pronouns. The speech pathologist seems to acknowledge this particular problem. The report says:

On many occasions, Ethan provided an appropriate response to the given sentence, however since it was not the targeted response, credit was not allowed (e.g Ethan was shown a picture of a school choir and given the sentence "the choir has a song to sing -- who will sing a song". Ethan replied with "the choir", however the targeted response was "they will").

In ordinary English, "the choir" is actually a more natural response to that question than "they will". Ethan's response is actually superior to the officially-accepted one, taking just the question in isolation. Only if you know that the rules of the game expect you to respond with a sentence including a pronoun will you prefer "they will". Even then, it sounds sort of artificial, but a student who understands the pragmatics of the conversation might do all right on this question. A student with problems involving the pragmatics of conversation will almost certainly not. Ethan has problems with the pragmatics of conversation, which means this question will not test what it's supposed to be testing, which is the proper use of pronouns, but rather the pragmatic ability to discover the conversational rules of the language game being played. So this seems to be a badly-designed test. I wonder how the rest of the test is. This is the only example she gave.

2. Another test involved recognizing semantic absurdities. Presumably with an eight-year-old kid they won't be asking things on the level of the liar paradox, but I would hope they could do better than the example the speech pathologist gave in her report. She says that he couldn't recognize that the sentence, "The plumber fixed the lights" is silly. I can't either. My uncle was a plumber, and he probably fixed lights at some point in his life. He did own his own house, after all. That sentence is perfectly meaningful, and there's nothing absurd about it. I could see how this would be a nice sentence to test actual understanding of semantic absurdity, because some kids might be fooled into thinking that it's semantically absurd, when it's not. But the test actually has it doing the opposite. The kids who can see that it's a meaningful sentence come out with a lower score for vocabulary recognition.

The speech pathologist concludes, "This indicates that Ethan demonstrated difficulty understanding the target words in the sentences that were used incorrectly." Maybe there were other sentences where that's true, but this example shows nothing of the sort. Ethan knows full well what the word "plumber" means, and that's the most difficult word in the sentence. One of the tests the psychologist gave to him during this process tested his vocabulary at the level of the second half of sixth grade (he's in third). His problem wasn't that he doesn't understand the vocabulary in the sentence but that he knows something the test designers didn't, which is that the sentence in question is perfectly meaningful in English and could easily be used without anything silly going on. Unlike the first example, the speech pathologist didn't seem to recognize this fact.

Update: I should say that I accept that you can derive an absurdity from this second example, if you provide a particular context, e.g. if you're told that the plumber is carrying out a job as a hired plumber and doing only that job. If you say enough that someone who understands English fully competently, together with the pragmatic rules of conversation, will understand all that information, then perhaps such a person would think such information tells against thinking the plumber will be fixing lights. But that's precisely my point. You need a pragmatic context to derive the absurdity, and this isn't a test of pragmatics but of semantic absurdities. There's nothing semantically absurd about that sentence.

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Race Thought Experiment #4

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What if God created the universe not with the slow development most of us believe to have happened and even without the "memories" of such a slow development? Yet on the surface people look like what they look like in the actual world, and they relate to each other socially in the same ways. They just don't have the long history we have, and they don't have false memories of such a history either.

Would there be any races? If there are, would they be the same groups as or very similar groups to our races (i.e. would the lines of demarcation for races be the same as what they now are)?

Christian Carnival CCCXI

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The 311th Christian Carnival is up at Fish and Cans.

I was reading William Klein's review of David Peterson's Acts commentary. It included this strange argument:

In a startling example of eisegesis Peterson states, "... we may assume that wherever resistance to the message is recorded, Luke believed the Lord had not yet acted in grace and power to enable belief" (p. 404). May we? In fact Luke explains that the Jews rejected the word of God and judged themselves unfit for eternal life (13:46). I guess this shows how we all see what we want to see in texts and may wish to ignore other ways of seeing things.

The following two claims are at issue, and Klein seems to think the second claim is supposed to undermine the first. I'm not sure how.

1. Resistance to the gospel only occurs when God hasn't led someone to believe.
2. Jews rejected God and thus became unfit for eternal life.

Earlier in the review, Klein makes it clear that Peterson accepts a standard compatibilist Calvinism, whereby "God determined the players' roles in Jesus' crucifixion (2:23) without diminishing those players' responsibility for their actions". So it isn't as if he thinks Peterson denies human responsibility. But it seems the second claim is merely an affirmation of human responsibility, and somehow that's supposed to undermine the view that resistance occurs only in the absence of saving grace. Only if you took the hyper-Calvinist view that we aren't responsible for our actions would you end up thinking your belief in 1 was incompatible with 2. So I'm completely at a loss as to why Klein thinks this criticism applies to Peterson's view, because he knows that Peterson isn't such a hyper-Calvinist and even said so earlier in this review.

Am I just missing something here?



The 311th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at Fish and Cans. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

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Personal Identity intro

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This is the 53rd post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series, beginning a new subject: personal identity. (The last post on artificial intelligence finished off the Mind and Body topic.)

What are the criteria for what makes someone the person they are? A lot of changes we can go through leave us existing as the same people. We've changed, but we're still there as the people who have changed. Some things that can be done to us leave us no longer around, as much as we don't like to think about that. Most cases of both are uncontroversial. But that doesn't tell us what it is to be us, and philosophers raise lots of puzzles about what changes we might undergo without ceasing to be us.

Philosophers will answer these kinds of questions by talking about essential properties. An essential property is something necessary for a thing to be what it is. An essential property of a triangle is having three angles. If it somehow got a fourth angle, it would no longer be a triangle. The triangle would cease to exist. My having a beard is not an essential property. I can shave my beard, but I would still be around afterward, and I'd be exactly the same person I was beforehand. Which properties are essential is a matter of debate, however.

Some people, following Rene Descartes, hold that we have a part that's not physical at all but an immaterial mind or soul. This view, dualism, would say you need the same soul to be the same person. [Descartes' own view is that the immaterial mind is not just a part of him but is all of him. His body is just a place his mind occupies. Most dualists think rather that the mind and body are both parts of us.] It's not immediately clear with some changes (e.g. if you used a Star Trek transporter) if the same soul would be present afterward according to dualism.

Other people say you need the same body. If so, you die when your body dies, but you continue if your body is still alive, even if other things aren't present (e.g. a functioning brain). Some say you need the same brain. If so, you might end up with a new body if your brain gets moved to a new body.

Some might say you need psychological continuity, e.g. having a continuing set of beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, loves, character traits, and so on (which obviously get somewhat changed over time but only gradually and through a process where most of them continue). Some who hold this view have even suggested we could be converted to computer programs and survive that way. [John Searle questions this, as we've seen in his Chinese Room argument. Behavior as if you think isn't enough for genuine thinking.]

These same criteria come up in John Perry's A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality. Is it possible to exist after you've died? Lots of people think so, so it must not be obviously absurd. Gretchen Weirob is about to die. She wants the slightest possibility that she'll continue to exist. What if someone in the future has all her characteristics at her death? No - it has to be her, not just someone exactly like her (e.g. an identical twin who somehow also had the same memories and exactly the same personality traits). That's the kind of identity we mean, not just exact similarity but really being Weirob herself. She can anticipate what she will do and look forward to it, because it's not someone else. It's never correct to anticipate doing something that someone else will do. That's just an imposter.

Consider the example of burning a Kleenex box. If you later say of something "this is the very same box of Kleenex", that seems absurd. Even if you reconstructed something exactly like it, it wouldn't be the same box. Consider the same with the Mona Lisa.

So how could I survive death? The next post will begin looking at the different personal identity views, how they answer that question, and the various objections to them.

Race Thought Experiment #3

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If God created the universe not with the slow development most of us believe to have happened but pretty much as it is now, with all the "memories" and seeming causes that give signs of the past, would the racial groups we now identify still count as races? Would they be the same groups (i.e. would the lines of demarcation for races be the same as what they now are)?

Christian Carnival CCCX

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Welcome to the 310th Christian Carnival. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. For more information on the Christian Carnival, see here. If you are interested in hosting a future Christian Carnival, please let me know at the email address in the sidebar. The current schedule of hosts is here.

I'm listing the submissions in the order I received them, generally including a description beyond the title only if none was submitted or I find the title uninformative. I'll include some ringers at the end that no one submitted, as is my usual tradition when hosting, and I'm including late submissions for last week's carnival at the end (take note that there's no guarantee of any future host doing that). If you submitted a post that meets the sumission requirements, and it doesn't appear here, please let me know. Posts are supposed to be from the last week, on some topic related to Christianity, and from a point-of-view that isn't at odds with the creeds recognized in common by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christians.

Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has come under fire for some race-related comments he made a while back about President Obama's election that have recently come to light:

He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,'

I wouldn't say that there's no problem with Reid's words, but I'm wondering how it amounts to what a lot of critics have been saying. The comments from a number of politicians make fascinating reading. Republicans want to say that the remarks are racist or at least inappropriate, and they point to a double standard by Democrats, who find little problem with Reid but were calling for Trent Lott's resignation for speaking off-the-cuff at a birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) to say that if he'd been elected president we wouldn't have some of the problems we have. Of course, the same could be said for those who defended Lott but have now attacked Reid.

What Trent Lott said was totally unproblematic in its actual content. It's the context that made people think he meant something more. He was talking about someone who has long been hailed as a stalwart conservative, and if he'd been president we surely would have had more conservative policies than the ones we actually got with President Truman. So a conservative senator could indeed have said what he said and not meant anything even racially-related.

But he was also talking about someone with a history of supporting segregation, who was actually running with a segregationist party on the occasion Lott was referring to. He was speaking at an event in the South, and there were almost certainly people present who fully agreed with Thurmond's former views who would have heard such a statement as support for such views. I doubt Lott was even thinking of that. He was probably just trying to be nice to a very elderly colleague celebrating a birthday, and I find it unlikely that the racial issue was even on his mind. It doesn't amount to racism, but it amounts to racial insensitivity and ignorance, and it perpetuates patterns of such behavior that are worth calling attention to and seeking to undermine. So I do think it was good for people to call attention to it, even if it does seem a bit much to me to insist that he resign from a Senate leadership position over it.

On the other hand, Harry Reid's problem is not in the content of what he said but in his choice of actual words. What he said is actually either true or at least certainly arguably so. He made two claims: (1) that Obama couldn't have been elected as easily if he seemed "more black" to more people and (2) the reason he seems "less black" to some people is that he has lighter skin and doesn't naturally speak the way a lot of black people do.

The second claim is certainly true. Linguists study the language patterns of sub-communities with particular dialects, and one common dialect occurs among black people across the country, with similar traits no matter what part of the country they're in. This isn't another language. It's English. But it has some different grammatical rules and pronunciations from standard American English. It's usually associated with inner city or poor and very rural blacks. A lot of black Americans speak more standard English most of the time and occasionally take on an affect of what some linguists call Black English. The rest of the time their grammar and pronunciation are pretty standard. There is also a southern-like element to some word pronunciations for a lot of black Americans even if they don't ever use the dialectical elements unique to Black English, and this is true no matter what region of the country the person is from. That accent is sometimes detectable over the phone, and people often associate it with race, sometimes looking down on people for speaking that way. This is all just a matter of linguistic and sociological fact. Acknowledging it is neither racist nor succumbing to pressure to cater to racists. Knowing the facts about how race works in this country does not amount to liking those facts or wanting them to be that way. It seems to me to be simply true that President Obama does not speak the way a lot of people who have negative stereotypes about how black people speak would expect a black man to speak, except when he chooses to do so.

As for the first claim, I think it's at least arguable that Obama would have had a harder time getting elected if people with negative stereotypes about black people had seen him as "more black". With a white mother, lighter than average skin for a black man, and speech patterns that are more ambiguous, a lot of people who might hesitate to identify with him could more easily do so. A lot of people who might have a harder time respecting him might more easily do so. I don't want to minimize how far this country has come with race in being able to elect him. Nevertheless, interviews showed that people with racial animus or some resistance to voting for a black candidate were able to pull the lever for Obama. One possible explanation that's certainly not obviously false is that they saw him as "less black". Would someone who looks and talks like Chris Rock have as easy a time getting elected president? I don't think so. Could someone who looks and talks like Chris Rock do it? Maybe. I'm not as sure as Reid. But the claim he was making doesn't seem ridiculous. I've heard a number of black academics make exactly that claim in meetings at the American Philosophical Association where his becoming president has come up.

The only thing I see that's seriously wrong with Reid's statement is the expression "Negro dialect". I haven't encountered that exact expression before ever, but I suspect it's a relic of Reid's growing up with "Negro" as the preferred term for black people, and he's not so heavily involved with the black community or racial issues to have gotten the immediate sense of its inappropriateness the way anyone with any racial sensitivity nowadays would have. So, like Lott, it shows that he's racially out of touch. It's not about referencing a racist or racially-harmful ideology as good, which I think Lott did unintentionally and lots of people claimed he did intentionally. It's about overt language that's usually offensive nowadays but used to be fine. The result is the same, though. He showed some racial insensitivity, even if the Democrats defending him are right that he's voted the right way all along. Voting the right way is compatible with being extremely insensitive. Democrats generally take Ted Kennedy to have voted the right way with women's issues, but there's no arguing that his attitude toward women was always wonderful. The same goes for Bill Clinton.

So that makes me conclude the following two things. First, the nature of the offense is different in the two cases. One involves overt language without ill intent in one case and potential implicatures that probably weren't but could have been meant in the other. Second, the real problem this analysis reveals is that both senators showed serious insensitivity and ignorance about race issues. So I do wonder if calls for Lott to resign should consistently be made against Reid and if those who thought Lott's statement shouldn't require a resignation should apply the same reasoning to Reid. I don't think either requires a resignation, but both should lead us to consider how ignorant and insensitive those who lead us are about race issues, and the most important fact about racial ignorance is that it's an unknown unknown. You don't know you have it until someone points it out. We should use moments like this to raise understanding to a higher level, not for political points or to try to remove someone in an influential position from that position merely because the person's ignorance is now known (as if the ones who haven't happened to reveal it are just fine). I'm therefore much more inclined to direct my criticism to those who don't recognize the parity between these cases than I am to direct it toward the two senators in question.

John Mark Reynolds' response has helped me to clarify where I think he and I are disagreeing on the torture question.

JMR defends his view based on his argument that torture is worse than killing. Of course, I can easily concede that torture can be worse than killing. But I can't accept that it always is. In 8th grade, a fellow student of mine used to give me wet willies at pretty regular intervals throughout the day. I consider that torture of a very weak sort. It was evil for him to do so, and how I responded was also evil. I got so fed up that I kicked him in the family jewels (or maybe I kneed him). I also consider that to be a kind of torture. Neither is worse than killing someone. Both inflicted pain of a particularly excessive sort. Both involve using someone as a mere means to an end, in his case to take delight in someone else's pain, in my case to satisfy my desire for revenge. Both are wrong, but both are less wrong than killing.

A police officer might cause severe psychological pain by lying to someone in a way that leads to a confession. A police officer might cause physical pain, as long as it's not severe and permanent. Both are perfectly legal in law enforcement, although they are not for military interrogators, who aren't allowed to lie or even touch a suspected terrorist, which was why the Bush Administration wanted more allowed for CIA interrogators, since standard military interrogations were ineffective against al Qaeda. I count such things as mild torture, and they don't seem all that wrong to me, even if one might argue that they are wrong. They certainly aren't worse than killing the suspect.

The key issue is that torture comes in degrees. Killing does too but not in the same sense. What makes an act of killing worse is how you do it, why you do it, and so on. But killing is killing. Torture can be fairly weakly torture, or it can
be pretty awful torture. Killing can be worse because it also involves torture, but the killing itself is not worse. It's the torture that adds to the badness of the killing. Killing is all-or-nothing, and torture comes in degrees in a way that
begs for an analysis that's more complex than simple right and wrong. It's at least a spectrum from not as bad to extremely bad, and it may well be a spectrum from morally required to significantly evil.

I think Mark Olson's question is helpful, so I'll repeat here my comment on his post:

If you only consider consequentialist principles, you can't get an absolute prohibition on anything except the principle that we should seek the best consequences. So to get a moral ban on all torture, there better be some deontological principles at stake. The question is whether those deontological principles themselves are absolutist.

I happen to think the only deontological principle that is absolutist is the moral claim that we ought to give due honor to God and follow him in whatever ways are best for doing so. There are many ethical principles beyond that, and most of them apply most of the time. Some of them apply almost all the time and would require crazy hypotheticals to find exceptions (or very weak cases with moral principles about matters that involve vague concepts occurring along a spectrum, such as consent and coercion, harm, or what someone's motivation and desires are in doing an act).

But to answer your question, I think the deontological principle behind JMR's opposition to torture is his principle that it's always wrong to coerce someone, a principle I've questioned. He doesn't think it's always wrong to cause pain or to cause pain that someone remembers. He doesn't think it's always wrong to cause harm, even permanent harm, knowing full well that one is doing so. He does think it's wrong to cause harm for the sake of causing harm without some higher purpose, but he doesn't think such a higher purpose can be merely getting information that will lead to better consequences when the causing of harm is done to violate someone's ability to consent to giving up that information. So it's mainly an issue of consent to choose to speak when one wants to and to refrain from giving information when one doesn't.

As I've said along the way, I think the problem with that argument is that consent and coercion come along a spectrum, and weaker versions of coercion undermining consent can be morally correct under the right sorts of circumstances. When the consequences increase in their badness, avoiding them might require undermining consent to a stronger degree than is normally moral. That's why I think torture isn't in principle wrong. JMR has a more absolutist view about that principle. We both take it to be deontological, because neither of us thinks slightly better consequences for a serious undermining consent are enough to justify it. But he takes it to be absolutist, whereas I think there could be circumstances where undermining someone's consent via coercion to a great degree can be morally all right, as long as those consequences are extremely serious.

So I'm not sure the disagreement is really meta-ethical. It's more on the level of normative ethics, I think.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

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To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Torture and Absolutism

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I wanted to make one observation about John Mark Reynolds' recent posts on torture at Evangel. One of the things that has struck me over several years of considering this question from a Christian point of view is that arguments against torture are either (a) implausible and conflicting with actual biblical allowances and endorsements or (b) non-absolutist and allowing for some exceptions, even if the burden of proof and extremely strong cause for hesitation should always be present. (By absolutism, I mean the view that something is always wrong with no possible exceptions.)

For ease of reference, here are the posts:

One Bad Argument in Favor of Torture
Cicero not Nero!
On Pacifism and Torture
A Conservative and Pragmatic Argument Against Torture

Arguments Against Torture

Consider the image of God argument. This is the same reasoning used against killing, and yet the scriptures make it very clear that capital punishment is not just allowable but mandated by God, at least in a certain context. (I'll leave it open whether it should be used today. What matters for my point here is that God not just allowed it the way he allowed divocrce in the Mosaic law. He commanded it in the Torah, and Paul seems to affirm the use of the sword in carrying out justice in Romans 13, so there's not even a plausible argument that the new covenant removes this allowance.) So I don't think the fact that we're made in the image of God is going to rule out all torture, since it doesn't rule out all killing and it's the explicit biblical reason not to kill people.

Aristotelian virtue arguments point out how bad it is to become the sort of person who could bring yourself to torture someone. Of course this is right, but it's also bad to become the sort of person who could bring yourself to kill someone. The argument that we ought to find the right mean, that we ought to be moderate, does not imply that we won't sometimes do something that is usually on one of the extremes. Aristotle, for example, saw honesty and truth-telling as virtues between the extremes of lying and betraying confidences. But there might be some occasions when lying to save someone's life is morally necessary (as God instructed Samuel to do when he anointed David) or betraying a confidence is morally necessary (as happens in courts of law all the time in the pursuit of justice, with the only significant exceptions being attorney-client, spousal privilege, and medical/psychological practitioner/client relationships). Just because the mean is the best spot doesn't mean the actions usually on the extremes always will be. Occasionally you'll find actions that are usually on an extreme ending up as the mean. So Aristotelian golden mean arguments will never rule out an action in principle, since that's not how the view works.

The coercion argument strikes me as mistaken, also. There are certainly occasions when it's right to coerce someone. For example, we put criminals in prison. We threaten to imprison or fine people to get them to testify or to serve on a jury. We impose severe penalties to those who won't pay their taxes. We have on occasion drafted people to serve in the military and kill other people, and when that's a just and popular war most people don't think it's as problematic as in wars that are very unpopular or obviously unjust. We require people to work or show progress toward improving employment capability if they're to receive government benefits of various sorts. It strikes me that the case of torture is most analogous to other kinds of coercion to get testimony, and the major difference is in the method of coercion, not in the principle that it's wrong to coerce people to tell the truth.

Race Thought Experiment #2

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If someone appeared out of nowhere who was an exact duplicate of Chris Rock, would he be black? Would he be a memer of the same race as Chris Rock? Why or why not?

Would you say the same if it was a duplicate of Britney Spears? Would her duplicate be white? Why or why not?

Would a duplicate of Dwayne Johnson have the same racial status (whatever you think that is) as Dwayne Johnson? Why or why not?

If you answer any of these questions differently, what makes the difference between the different cases and why would that be?

Artificial Intelligence

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This is the 52nd post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. In my last post, I looked at Frank Jackson's argument for property dualism, concluding the major arguments involving dualism and materialism about the human mind. This last mind-related post covers artificial intelligence, particularly whether a computer program could be enough to generate genuine thinking.

The strongest argument that a computer might think is an argument from analogy. At least some examples of artificial intelligence in science fiction seem to do the same things we do when we think. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, Lt. Commander Data is an android who certainly seems to be a conscious, thinking being. In one episode, Starfleet conducted a trial to determine whether he was the property of Starfleet or whether he has rights enough to refuse to be dismantled for research into artificial intelligence. The argument that won the day is that, though we can't prove Data to have a mind, we also can't prove anyone besides ourselves to be consciously aware. They do the things we do when we're consciously aware, and they have similar brain states according to our best science, but is it absolute proof? So it doesn't seem like Data is in much worse shape than any normal human being, right? We should at least give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to moral issues.

Nevertheless, John Searle's Chinese Room example is designed to show that a computer program that appears to think isn't thereby thinking. You might be able to design a program that follows steps to appear to think, but that doesn't mean it really understands anything.

Put a man in a room and give him instructions about what to do when he sees certain symbols. He is to follow the instructions and write down different symbols as a result. Little does he know that the symbols he receives are actual Chinese questions, and he's giving back actual Chinese answers. From the outside, someone might think someone inside understands Chinese and is answering the questions, but it's all based on rules. This is exactly what people trying to develop artificial intelligence are trying to accomplish. Searle says it's a misguided goal if people think this is genuine thinking and understanding, since the Chinese Room case shows that no one is thinking, even though all the behavioral responses to stimuli indicate that someone must be thinking. This is a problem for functionalism, since all the functional roles are present. It's a problem for the Artificial Intelligence project, since something like this could be developed, but Searle insists that merely accomplishing it doesn't give us anything that thinks.

Searle considers some objections. The Systems Reply admits that the man in the room doesn't understand, and the room itself certainly doesn't, nor does the instruction book. But the whole system - the man, the room, and the instruction book - does understand Chinese. Searle responds that he can make the system disappear by having the man memorize all the rules. The room does little work here. Now give the man Chinese questions, and he can write the proper answers. He acts as if he understands, yet there's no way he does - and he is the system. So the system doesn't understand.

The Robot Reply says what's missing is involvement in the world. Just language isn't enough. Make it interact with the world in more ways by putting the program in a robot that can talk, move around, play catch, etc. In that case, it seems more as if it thinks. A computer doesn't get to hold things in its hand and move around. It has no contact with the things its statements are about. Some have thought that giving it contact with those things would make it easier to see it as understanding what the statements are about.

Searle gives two problems for this reply. First, it concedes a bit much for the artificial intelligence thesis to be true anymore. Thinking is no longer about symbol manipulation but has to be caused in the right way and lead to certain kinds of behavior. It's not all based on just getting the right program. Second, simply getting a machine to move around and interact with the world doesn't make it think. Put a person inside the robot and give her instructions as with the man in the Chinese Room, and you would get the same result - it doesn't seem as if thinking is going on here.

There's an even easier reply that Searle could make (but doesn't). He can go back to his example of the person inside the room becoming the system. This is a person who moves around and can interact with things. This person can even know that these statements are about these things somehow. But that doesn't require the person to know which words mean what. I can know a Chinese statement is about the apple in my hand without knowing what the words mean. So interacting with the world can't be enough for me to understand what my statements are about.

The Brain Simulator Reply says that what's missing in the Chinese Room case is that it's not based enough on the actual human brain. Base it more directly on how neurons cause neurons to do things and such, and then maybe you'd be more inclined to call it genuine thinking. First of all, Searle points out that the whole idea was to get the right program, and then it thinks, regardless of the actual structure of the thing doing the thinking. It no longer fits with this if you model it directly on the human brain. It's no longer discovering the right program but is now just duplicating aspects of human brains. Second, you can do something like this with a person inside. Instead of manipulating symbols in a room, imagine that he has a complex system of water pipes, and he manipulates levers and nozzles so that water moves through pipes the way electrical signals do in the brain. Model it on the human brain. There's still no understanding.

Finally, the Combination Reply says to take aspects of the previous examples and combine them into one, so this would be an interactive robot with a computerized brain modeled directly on a human brain with behavior indistinguishable from human behavior, and then we'd be more inclined to think the whole system thinks. Searle admits that we might find that claim to be more reasonable. The problem is that now we're as far away from stumbling on the right program as we could get. We haven't discovered a program but have simply made something very close to a human. When we say apes think and feel, it's because we can't find any other explanation of their behavior, and they have a similar enough brain to ours. If we say that about this robot, it's for the same reasons. If we discover that it's just a program, we'd be inclined to say there's no thinking going on.

Searle insists that human thinking is based on the human brain, and our minds are just our brains. He resists the idea that thinking might occur apart from actual human brains. Any thinking must be based in something very close to the human brain. Consider the seeming possibility of a human body acting purely according to physical laws but not actually experiencing anything (philosopher David Chalmers has coined a technical term in philosophy for such a being: he calls them Zombies). Or consider someone who experiences things differently from most people even while having the same brain state (philosophers call such people Mutants, again coining a technical term that doesn't coincide with normal usage). Zombies and Mutants, in these senses, are impossible, according to Searle. Something had better be close enough to the normal human brain, or it doesn't have pain, boredom, or thoughts such as the thought that 2 + 2 = 4. Searle just has to deny that Mutants are possible, something David Lewis, who started out with a view similar to Searle's, didn't want to insist on, since there's no real argument for it. Zombies also couldn't exist, since something with a human brain automatically thinks. Maybe this is right (many materialists besides Searle think so, e.g. Simon Blackburn), but it's hard to prove such a thing.

NPR Misuing Tax Money?

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Some on the right (e.g. Hot Air) are now attacking NPR for having opinion columnists who make fun of the tea parties (and the truly offensive video at issue was almost two months ago, so it's strange to be seeing this suddenly now). This sounds an awful lot like the idiotic claim of the Obama Administration that Fox News isn't news because they have some conservative opinion people who criticize the Obama Administration more than they criticized the Bush Administration.

There is at least has an argument for distinguishing the two, though. Bill O'Reilly, for example (and this comes up in the Hot Air discussion too), claims that NPR is publicly-funded and therefore shouldn't be doing this, whereas a private media organization is another matter entirely. The problem is that his assumption is false. The facts don't support his distinction. NPR doesn't receive any tax money. They operate entirely based on donations. Local stations can receive tax money to pay for NPR programming, so the network might get those funds indirectly, but NPR as a network doesn't receive any tax money. This particular opinion cartoonist operates on the NPR website, not on the local stations that carry NPR programming, so none of that tax money would be paying for this anyway. If tax money paid for a local public newspaper to run an Associated Press column, and the Associated Press also had an offensive and biased editorial on their website, it would be ludicrous to complain that public funding paid for the biased and offensive editorial. But that's exactly parallel to what's going on in this example.

I've long maintained that conservatives ought to listen to NPR regularly if they get most of their news from right-wing blogs and Fox News. There's no other mainstream media source that gets you as much content in so short a time, and the level of discussion on a lot of their shows (e.g. Talk of the Nation, Diane Rehm) is usually much better than anything you'll find on cable news, even if they don't always spend much time thinking about finding the best or most mainstream conservatives (but at least they beat MSNBC's use of Pat Buchanan as their token conservative on many panels). I do think there can sometimes be certain elitist, secularist, or left-leaning biases to some of it, but you're going to find much more of that in most any other mainstream media source, and you have other biases, some of them truly problematic, in most of the right-leaning sources. It's worth it to conservatives to be aware of the mainstream left's arguments so that they'll not make the horrific mistakes that many of the right make when they're ignorant of the left's arguments or of the facts that the right ignores en masse (as in the present example). I think it's no accident that two of the four most common liberal Fox News opinion panelists work for NPR during the day. They wanted some intellectually-honest liberals who nonetheless firmly defend positions of the left, and they found that with some NPR employees.

I think the attacks on Fox News are reprehensible. I have little good to say about Glenn Beck, and I don't think Sean Hannity has much to say that's very insightful, although I do think he at least means well. Bill O'Reilly is a lot more independent in his thinking than either of them, and I like that, but I don't find most of his comments especially brilliant. But those three are opinion hosts, and opinion hosts give opinions. The opinion hosts on the other cable news networks do the same thing and certainly lean certain ways with their opinions, with no one complaining that it makes the networks somehow magically become not news during their hard news segments. With the exception of the Fox News morning show (which is more like Good Morning America), a silly late-night show (on at like 3am) that I don't know what to make of, and the prominent opinion shows that get the most viewers, the entire Fox lineup is almost exclusively nothing but professional hard news.

Those running the programming to tend to be right-of-center, just as those running the programming on CNN and MSNBC are significantly left-of-center (enough to think Pat Buchanan represents the mainstream right in the case of MSNBC, and no one who is only moderately left could think that). Anything someone might find from the main programming during the hard news hours that turns out to be problematic upon close examination can just as easily be paralleled by items in the hard news time of the other networks that raise similar questions (such as the MSNBC video of a black guy carrying a gun into a tea party rally, which carefully edited out his skin to try to make it seem like it was a white racist carrying the gun in to fuel anti-black racism). Those who tar the network as not news just because of people like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity are acting reprehensibly, especially coming from those in prominent positions of civil leadership. (And I have to wonder what Greta Van Susteren thinks of all this. I wonder if she might have voted for Obama but was so disappointed at his failure to keep his reform promises and bi-partisan commitment, along with his vicious attacks on her employer, whom she sees as nothing but professional, that she's suddenly joined in on the strong criticism of this administration, when she's been largely apolitical until about a year ago. Maybe I've got her wrong, but she really comes across that way to me.)

What I'd like the right to see is that they're doing something similar when they pick out an opinion column on a website run by a news network as if it shows that none of the hard news on the network is trustworthy, supplementing that argument with false claims about where the money paying for that opinion is coming from and fostering rage among taxpayers who then get the false opinion that their tax money is paying for it. There are plenty of things to complain about tax money going toward, especially under the current Democratic hegemony's massive profligacy with regard to my children's well-being (all the while claiming that we should all sacrifice short-term for the sake of longer-term good when it comes to other issues). We don't need to make up false tax expenditures to feed the outrage of government waste. Pick some real examples, please. Far more government money goes to what's indisputably far more wasteful than the money that goes to some of the NPR affiliate stations, and none of it goes to NPR as a network, which is where this opinion piece was hosted. This is a stupid argument.

Christian Carnival CCCIX

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The 309th Christian Carnival is up at RodneyOlsen.net.

Update: I don't usually do this, but two posts are so outstanding that I wanted to highlight them. John Howell's Does God Feel Emotions? is a very good summary of a difficult question for classical theism, which holds that God is not changed in any way by what happens in the world but yet has to deal with emotion-language in scripture.

Also, MandM's Joshua and the Genocide of the Canaanites, Part I is one of the best presentations of the view that language in the book of Joshua commanding what seems to be genocide is hyperbole, informed significantly by recent conversations by some prominent biblical scholars and philosophers of religion, many of whom are evangelicals with a high view of scripture. The one difficulty I've had with that view is Samuel's criticism of Saul in I Samuel 15, which has seemed to many interpreters to be because he didn't fulfill a literal command to destroy all the Amalekites. Someone else named Jeremy raises that point in the comments, and I think the discussion that follows is very helpful. I'm not convinced, but I think the case for hyperbole has a good chance of faring a lot better in the fact of that objection than I was thinking before I read that conversation.

I'm enjoying reading Christopher Wright's commentary on Deuteronomy. He's especially insightful on ethical matters, and he's been excellent at defending against positions that I think have needed some careful argument to address (such as the claim that the Mosaic law treats women as property). But the following quote is puzzling.

It is not surprising, then, conversely, that a whole culture that systematically denies the transcendent by excluding the reality of God from the public domain, as Western societies have been doing for generations, also turns covetous self-interest into a socioeconomic ideology, rationalized, euphemized, and idolized. Knowing full well that you cannot serve God and mammon, we have deliberately chosen mammon and declared that a person's life does consist in the abundance of things possessed. [p.86]

I'm not interested in ignoring the role that covetous self-interest plays among those whose lifestyle is all about accumulating material wealth or the fact that such self-interest might attract someone to political views that they might expect to serve that self-interest. But he's talking about a systematic denial of God that turns covetous self-interest into an ideology, so it's got to be much more thoroughgoing than just the fact that people for self-interested reasons might like views that they see as serving their self-interest. It's as if the ideology itself is caused by self-interest and would have no existence otherwise. So what ideology does he mean? Capitalism? Libertarianism? Mainstream economic conservatism? Randianism?

If any of the first three, I think he's simply mistaken. The arguments in favor of those are not selfish pursuit of mammon, at least not in the ideal case, and the view itself is not the same thing as declaring that a person's life amounts just to the abundance of things possessed. Such views are at work in our culture, but what Wright says here is confusing two separate things. It would be more on the mark if he's targeting Ayn Rand, because she explicitly did ground her view in ethical egoism, but even she wouldn't treat human nature as if it's just about material possessions, and her view isn't exactly the mainstream socioeconomic view on the right.



The 309th Christian Carnival will be hosted this coming Wednesday at RodneyOlsen.netThe Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see the Christian Carnival archive.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

If some really smart aliens contaminated the world's water supply with some powerful transformative agent so that within three months everyone would come to look just like Chris Rock, would there be any races left (or maybe just one)? Would it still make sense to say that I'm white? Would I be black?

How should you change any of your answers if everyone was made to look like Britney Spears? Dwayne Johnson?

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